IndyCar’s Thermal experiment: Was it worth it, or was it just an expensive ‘headache’?


For the second race and first road course of 2024, IndyCar tried something new at the Thermal Club Million Dollar Challenge in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. The three-mile course in a gated community wasn’t designed for open-wheel racing and can’t exactly handle a standard points race, so instead, we got our first exhibition since the 2008 Gold Coast 300, with two semifinal heats to place in a twelve-man, two-part, twenty-lap sprint, all for a prize pool of nearly US$2 million. Before we all move ahead to the real meat of the season, let’s take a look back at the top performers and storylines of this little experiment.

Palou strolls to $500,000

Reigning national champion Álex Palou made it look easy out there, leading every lap he drove and refusing to let anyone get close enough to battle him for the top spot. While the haul of championship points this could have meant would’ve been nice, half a million bucks and a historic inaugural win at Thermal is no small consolation, and this flash of last year’s imperious form will no doubt strike terror into the hearts of his competition.

McLaughlin stays consistent for silver

Scott McLaughlin emerged as the top man amongst the Chevy drivers, taking second place in both his rounds. It wasn’t his flashiest race, and he spent much of the final sprint several seconds behind first, but he did what he needed to do: kept both himself and Team Penske on the podium, and bagged $350,000 for his trouble—$100,000 more than he thought P2 was worth. If you’re Pato O’Ward right now, you’ve got to be at least a little thankful this wasn’t for points.

Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske. (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Rosenqvist starts hot for $250K

Felix Rosenqvist earnt more than his share of the spotlight early on, leading the first heat from start to finish. While he couldn’t interrupt the Palou show in the headliner, and slipped back a place from where he started, it was still enough to earn a bronze medal and a quarter-million to his name. Combined with his seventh-place finish in St. Petersburg, the Swede has hit the ground running, and if he keeps this up, 60 could prove to be his lucky driver number.

Herta’s successful six-figure sandbag

Fresh off his victory at the IMSA 12 Hours of Sebring, Colton Herta spent his day stealing scenes through unconventional means. After clawing up from 11th to make it out of the first heat and finding himself at the back of the grid for the main event, the Andretti driver played the long game, saving his tyres in the first ten laps and letting loose after halftime. With a mix of fresher Firestones, skilful driving, and multiple mishaps from his competitors, Herta soon found himself in the top five and duelling with Marcus Armstrong for more. The Kiwi put in some great defensive driving, and would ultimately win $50,000 for his efforts, but after a protracted fight, Herta found a hole to punch through and took fourth to secure a $100,000 payday.

just going to leave these here ????#INDYCAR // #ThermalChallenge

— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) March 29, 2024

That said, the real impact here comes on a larger scale. If IndyCar returns to Thermal next year, Herta’s tactics will no doubt define the meta, either through others copying him or through the stewards changing the format to prevent a repeat.

Lundqvist brings the bounce-back

After a rough start to the season in St. Pete, Linus Lundqvist redeemed himself by becoming the only rookie to make the all-star sprint. Starting in the four-spot on heat two, he maintained his position for all ten laps, then had a respectable midfield run in the main event and placed sixth, making him best among those only taking home the minimum $23,000. In all, it was a much better showcase of Lundqvist’s abilities than what we saw last time, and he’ll surely look to build on it in the races to come.

Rossi’s aggressive drive to survive

Thanks to some huge last-minute setbacks in qualifying, the Arrow McLarens spent the bulk of the second heat fighting amongst themselves on the doorstep of sixth. Callum Illot did his best to put on a show before he heads back to his main gig in the World Endurance Championship, but ultimately it was Alexander Rossi who won the battle, then ran Tom Blomqvist off the road to seize sixth and survive.

.@AlexanderRossi‘s move to make the #ThermalChallenge finale was cleannnn ????‍????#INDYCAR // @ArrowMcLaren

— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) March 29, 2024

The F1 alumnus kept the same energy in the main event, and while not all of his gambles paid off—case in point, the fight with Josef Newgarden that ultimately took them both out of top-five contention—Rossi’s confidence and aggression are encouraging signs of what he might accomplish this year.

Siegel has a debut worth remembering

Fittingly for a brand-new track, we also saw a brand-new driver in the mix, as Nolan Siegel, coming off a victory at Indy NXT’s St. Petersburg event, took his first of four planned spins with the big boys in the Dale Coyne No.18. While he didn’t quite make the cut for the final sprint, the 19-year-old drove like he’d been there before, fighting from 12th to seventh in his heat and breathing down Colton Herta’s neck for a huge chunk of the way. With multiple high-profile spots awaiting him this year, including Long Beach and the Indianapolis 500, this was the kind of debut Siegel needed to get his feet wet, and it’ll be interesting to see what he does in his first points race.

The sicko’s guide to DNFs: RLL’s worst Coachella ever

The first heat certainly started memorably with the biggest crash of the year thus far. Just as everyone was approaching the first turn, Scott Dixon made a rare mistake and punted Romain Grosjean, who spun out and smashed into Rinus VeeKay. The knock-on effects reverberated for the rest of the heat, as it was ultimately decided on 20 minutes rather than ten laps, and Will Power’s hard right swerve to avoid getting caught in the wreck saved his car at the cost of his chance at victory. That said, it’s Grosjean who’ll feel this the most. Back-to-back DNFs are never a good way to start your season, especially with his precarious position in the sport.

Trouble in Turn 1! ????

This Lap 1 incident at The @ThermalClub from all angles.#INDYCAR // #ThermalChallenge

— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) March 26, 2024

With Sting Ray Robb having a quiet day for once, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing stepped up as the day’s meme team. After a strong start, with all three full-time drivers making it to the all-star sprint, only one saw the eleventh lap. First, Graham Rahal’s throttle locked up, and after several laps of trying to tough it out, he ultimately retired the car before half-time. Then, Pietro Fittipaldi, the biggest comeback kid in St. Petersburg, suffered a heartbreaking disqualification when the stewards effectively punished him for his team failing to properly fuel his car up at the start of the sprint. Even their lone survivor of the day, Christian Lundgaard, had to make emergency repairs at half-time, costing him valuable places. Without a doubt, RLL are thanking their lucky stars this was an exhibition, but they need to take the right lessons from this fiasco if they want to ensure it’s not an omen of things to come.

Miscellaneous misfortunes: kinda the whole thing?

Look, if Thermal becomes a regular fixture on the calendar, it’s not the end of the world. Between how much testing the teams were able to do over the weekend, the prize money on the line for the drivers, and the reprieve from mid-race ad breaks for stateside viewers, it’s possible to imagine a version of this event worth keeping around. But what we got for the debut was an exhibition timed unevenly between the first two real races of the season, a “made for TV” event with only 38 laps of driving in two and a half hours, a Million Dollar Challenge where no one actually wins a million dollars, and a broadcast lavishing praise on a bunch of rich people who literally live at a racetrack, yet barely showed up or showed interest on the rare occasions we saw them. Frankly, the longer the broadcast went on, the less sure I was why this belonged on NBC, and the more I learned about the residents, the more content I was to be watching at home instead of living around these country club weirdos.

???? SOUND ON ????#INDYCAR // #ThermalChallenge

— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) March 31, 2024

That’s all without getting to the racing itself, which wasn’t totally without drama or intrigue, but it says something when the most exciting run of the whole event required ten whole laps of sandbagging to set it up. As entertaining as Herta’s comeback was, if Thermal gets another televised event, the next running will be make-or-break for its reputation. One driver slacking off for half the race and then surging through the pack was entertaining. Half the field trying to copy it next year is agonizing to imagine. If this tactic is allowed to define the style of racing here, it’s going to put off new fans and leave long-haulers wondering why this belongs on the calendar more than Texas Motor Speedway did.

That’s to say nothing of the headache Thermal’s current place in the calendar creates. There’s certainly a place for midseason exhibitions, but there’s a reason the NBA, NHL, and MLB hold their All-Star Games halfway through the calendar and not the same month as opening day. The flow was already wobbly enough with a month between events, but six full weeks separating the first two championship races is a major self-imposed hurdle to hooking those potential fans into the rhythm of an IndyCar season, especially when there’s a golden opportunity to siphon off a discontented American F1 audience desperate to see actual battles for first place. If Thermal needs to be a spring race, so be it, but using it as a preseason showcase would build on what’s proved useful so far without jeopardising the hype and momentum of starting the season at St. Petersburg.

Future flames: so much drama in the Long Beach Grand Prix

If you need a palette cleanser while you wait for the next race, the next month is a great time to run back the tapes from past IndyCar races in Texas. Whether you’re a brand-new fan hoping to find out what you missed or a longtime follower looking to relive the past, there’s plenty worth seeing and remembering.

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Fortunately, when the wait finally ends, we’ve got the Grand Prix of Long Beach to look forward to. The former crown jewel of CART and ChampCar has maintained its position as the most prestigious street race of the year for good reason, and there’s no shortage of storylines going into it. Can Kyle Kirkwood repeat his victory from last year? How will David Malukas fare in his return from preseason injury? And most importantly, which of the strong starters so far will officially cement themselves as top championship contenders?

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